Carnot, Central African Republic. 1994.
The pick-up truck nearly ran me over. The man in the driver's seat leaned out the window, frowning. "You speak English?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"French? No French," he said. "You, Arabic?"
We had no common language. He slapped his hand against the door and zoomed off.
I soon came to learn that Rida ran the boulangerie and lived in a house with several Lebanese men who owned shops in town. Rida sent baguettes to my house. I told him I could buy my own. We chose French for our feeble attempts at communication, though Rida complained that I should teach him English. We came from opposite sides of the world. He dropped out of school at 14 to join the Lebanese army. I had never shot a gun. We came to Carnot at exactly the same time. We were both 23.
At first, he was angry at me for not wanting to date him. And I was angry at him for not wanting to be my friend. In the end, I won. I often ate lunch at his house where his Central African cook had learned to make Middle Eastern food. I visited him at the boulangerie which I walked by on my way to and from town. Once, after a particularly stressful day at school, I sat in his office and cried. Rida flew into a rage, "Who did this to you?" He was always ready for a fight. Once, when I was attempting to open a stubborn lock, Rida laughed and laughed, comparing how gently I was trying to finesse the lock, and how he would solve the problem, by kicking and banging until he broke the lock and busted the door.
Rida and I spent half our time together laughing, and the other half arguing. He could never understand what I was doing there, nor why I lived with the Central Africans, with no electricity, no running water. Only a few times did he drive his truck down the footpaths of my neighborhood to my house. He never ate any food nor drank any water that I served him. He sat tense until he couldn't stand it and would demand that we leave, climbing into his truck and bouncing down the footpaths too fast, cursing the kids who chased us. He thought I was a fool, the way I interacted with the Central Africans, and I thought he was cruel. But, in time, through many long and disjointed conversations, and much joking, we met somewhere in the middle.
The last time I saw him, two years after we had met, he drove me and my two site mates to the airstrip outside of town where a small plane had landed. We were being evacuated, the capital having broke out in the chaos of a coup attempt. Rida swore, Allah!, how much he was going to miss us. He too was ready to escape from Carnot, and as soon as he did, he promised, he was coming to find us. As the plane spiraled upwards, I looked down and saw Rida, standing by his truck, waving with the full length of his arms.
Two mornings ago, Rida calls me, from Carnot.
"Do you still look the same?" he asks. Mostly, I tell him, except the gray hair. "Me?" he says. "Fat. From eating too much meat!" He laughs. It turns out he has two girls and a boy, just like me. "And your husband? He is a good man?" Yes, very good, I assure him. He is happy for me.
When I ask him if he still runs the bakery, he scoffs. He is a diamond dealer now. "Kota Zo," I tease, Sango for big important person. "How do you remember Sango?" he asks. It surprises me as well.
I ask him how is life in Lebanon where his wife and kids live most of the time. "Bad," he says. "No security. Many problems. But when I come home, to my town Carnot, everything is peaceful."